Ukraine’s 2014: a belated 1989 or another failed 2004?

By Blog Admin, on 19 February 2014

Whatever their final outcome, the events in Ukraine seem likely to be of greater long-term import than the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. But, asks Andrew Wilson,  a long-term what?

 Whatever their outcome, the events in Ukraine seem likely to be of greater long-term import than the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. Ukrainians themselves are obviously debating their meaning and making comparisons with other momentous years in Ukrainian and general European history. But which year?

 This is not about geopolitics: this isn’t 1939, some replay of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with two titans dividing up Eastern Europe. Russia thinks geopolitically, but the EU does not, and until fairly recently the US has been just a voice offstage. The whole point of the debacle at the Vilnius Summit was the clash between the completely different modus operandi of Russia and the EU.

 There hasn’t been a proper post-Vilnius post-mortem yet (you can’t have a post-mortem till you identify the body). A technical rethink of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy is inevitable. But the whole point is that it is too technical. As I said to the NYT, the EU took a baguette to a knife fight. The Eastern Partnership is an ‘enlargement-lite’ policy at the very moment when Russia is committed to some heavy lifting. If there is a ‘struggle over Ukraine’, as so much of the media is determined to frame it, it is clearly a very unequal struggle.

 An unequal struggle

Particularly because, unfortunately, this is not 1989. This is potentially a great European moment, but without the solidarity we had in 1989. There have been solidarity demonstrations and pickets of Ukrainian oligarchs’ homes in London and Vienna – but unfortunately they were all organised by Ukrainians. Part of the reason for the ‘unequal struggle’ over Eastern Europe is that the EU is unequally committed to the Eastern Partnership. The southern states are largely absent from the debate. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was at the Vilnius Summit to negotiate with Merkel; but that was about keeping one lot of Eastern Europeans out (Bulgarians and Romanians) rather than inviting another lot in (Ukrainians). Imagine if Nigel Farage had been setting the agenda in 1989?

 The Ukrainian demonstrators began by wrapping themselves in the European flag, now they are castigating us for not helping defend European values. The EU is still reluctant to move on sanctions, so risks a great moral disaster. And the protestors are right: Europe is not just about optimum bureaucracy and trade arrangements, but about the basic rights and freedoms we now take for granted in the West.

Not ‘Orange Revolution 2.0’

The third obvious date is 2004; but this isn’t ‘Orange Revolution 2.0’, despite being in the same place, namely Kyiv’s central square, the ‘Maidan.’ The Orange Revolution was about a stolen election: it was therefore focused on politicians, who, to a lesser extent, also organised the original Maidan. This time, the protests were initiated on social media, and have been supported by social networks, NGOs and crowd-sourcing. A variety of self-governing groups have emerged, such as Self-Defence, AutoMaidan, Common Cause and Right Sector.

 The three parliamentary opposition leaders (Vitaly Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok) have struggled to catch up. They can appeal to the Maidan, they can try to sway it; but they cannot speak for it; while the leaders of the Maidan groups have yet to be included in negotiations. This disconnect makes a solution harder to find, particularly because the endgame this time has always been less clear. In 2004, a new election was always likely: now the 2015 election is a long way away, which reduces the incentive for members of the governing elite to defect prematurely.

 The oligarchs are not (yet) as split as they were in 2004, when most hedged their bets, at least. In Yanukovych’s Ukraine the state is relatively strong and the oligarchy relatively weak. Sticks and carrots have kept ranks relatively solid. Though mainly sticks –  with the economy stagnant, the threat of oligarchic defection seems to have been held at bay with kompromat  (compromising material) and threats to destroy the businesses of potential defectors.

 But there are some ways in which Ukraine in 2014 more truly embodies the spirit of 2004 – or of some of the things which were predicated prematurely in 2004, but are now actually truer ten years later.

 What has changed

 Civil Society is completely different: bigger and broader and with a different modus operandi. Everybody knew everybody else in 2004. It was all about personal contacts. Now you have highly professional volunteer networks. Though ‘professional’ civil society has increasingly moved into the background as self-help groups have taken over.

 It was premature to talk of a middle class revolution in 2004. The economy had only been growing since 2000. Now the middle class is bigger, but its motives are defensive. Many protestors are entrepreneurs or small businesspersons fed up with the predatory state: the SME sector has been subject to the greed of the Yanukovych ‘Family,’ to rampant raidertsvo, (raiders) and to the authorities’ tax-and-destroy policy, in place since 2010. So in many ways, this is a classic revolutionary J-curve – a middle class that was on the rise and then saw its position threatened.

 But the middle class element is not dominant on the Maidan. Research shows that over time the protestors have become more male, from smaller towns and regions, and the average level of education has fallen. ‘Maidan-the-meeting’ has become ‘Maidan-the-camp’ and then ‘Maidan-the-fortress,’ with a more populist tone at the sharp end.

On the other hand, new media technology has been more important than in 2004 – with all the well-known paradoxes involved. Facebook and Twitter can assemble a crowd, but you can’t negotiate via SMS. Hromadske TV debuted at the same time as the protests, and has fed the Maidan’s spirit of self-organisation and start-up activism.

Activists have made good use of information strategies to publicise the regime’s crimes and violence. As with Europe in general, Ukrainian activists are often one step ahead, providing the information that ought by now to have shamed more Western countries into acting on sanctions. The wealth of the ‘Family’ is detailed at www.yanukovich.info; the culpability of key officials at http://personalaccountability.info. The project ‘Don’t be a brute!’, at http://skoty.info/, aims to expose and limit militia violence.

 A revolution without colour

The second point about 2004, however, is the declining relevance of the ‘coloured revolution’ paradigm. In December, just after the Russian offer of financial aid to Ukraine, the notoriously post-modern Russian political technologist Marat Gelman mocked the whole idea of successive Maidans in the tweet: ‘Maidan installation sold for 15 billion – most expensive art object ever’ (dated 19 December), bought by a discerning Russian collector (Putin). That is to say, protest-as-carnival is an outdated idea.

 Anne Applebaum has also written that the coloured revolution ‘model is dead,’ but mainly because of the power of those it seeks to oppose: ‘corrupt oligarchs, backed by Russian money and Russian political technology, are a lot stronger than anyone ever expected them to be.’

 Vladimir Pastukhov has claimed in an interview for polit.ru, translated by Paul Goble, that ‘the doctrine of Gandhian non-violence has little place in revolutions which occur not in countries governed by those committed to democracy and rule of law but ready to use any amount of force to maintain themselves in power. In those cases, ‘playing on the nerves of an Asiatic or semi-Asiatic despot’ isn’t enough.

 But what next?

But what next? There is a discussion in Ukraine, but it goes round in circles. Right Sector has a simple answer – action directe. Common Cause wants to occupy government buildings – peacefully. But most people still talk about the ‘spirit of the Maidan.’ There are plenty of calls to ‘reboot’ the political system, but no total ‘reboot’ of method. Passive resistance (just standing around) looks outdated, but non-violence still holds for most.

 There is no uniform strategy towards state institutions and the organs of power. In the early phases of the protests, demonstrators took the classic ‘coloured revolution’ approach and tried to win over or disarm the aggressive intent of the Berkut. Then they started throwing rocks at them. Dmytro Potekhin, former leader of the NGO Znaiu, has complained that the movement ‘failed to do what an efficient movement needs to do – fuel clashes within the regime, leading to open change of loyalties of at least some state security forces. Most activists and their coordinators kept doing what made the 2004 Orange Revolution a success – nonviolent actions. This is good but not enough.’

 According to pollsters, support for the idea of creating ‘armed formations independent of the state’ among Maidan protestors went up from 15% in early December to 50% in February. Support for negotiating with the authorities went down from 51% to 27%.

 The rebel part of their nation

So another, less obvious year, for comparisons is 1709, the Battle of Poltava, when Ukrainian Cossacks fighting with Charles XII of Sweden were defeated by Peter the Great (who also had Cossacks fighting on his side). Kyiv has often been the point of entry into the East Slavic world – for religious and cultural ideas in the seventeenth century. Now, as in 1709, it is the centre of rebellion, confirming the stereotype of many Russians that the Ukrainians are the ‘rebel part of their nation.’ As after 2004, the Kremlin has yet to prepare a new wave of ‘counter-revolutionary technology’ – but surely will. For the moment it is desperately hoping that its narrative of ‘outside sponsorship’ and ‘alien values’ will stick.

 Russian opposition activists are using the events in Ukraine to revisit their own ‘Bolotnaya’ protest movement in 2011-12. Russia’s protest was an elite phenomenon, with too few of the ‘narod.’ In Ukraine it is the other way around. Vladimir Pastukhov says: ‘Russia’s ‘main problem’ is a ‘permanent false start’ in which leaders start moving before the population, and Ukraine’s is one in which the crowd assembles before those who are to compete on the field decide what they are to do.’

 However, the idea that the Russian opposition might learn from its Ukrainian equivalent is severely hampered by the relative Russian consensus supporting Putin’s stance this time around. In 2004 there were Russian opposition politicians like Boris Nemtsov supporting the Maidan. There was talk of a ‘Maidan.ru’ in Moscow in 2011-12. But there are few such supporters now. New Russian nationalists like Navalny are often dismissive of Ukrainian nationhood: they also do not want to support a Eurasian Union that is too (Central) Asian, i.e. without Ukraine. Though there might well be more tension in the longer run, as Russia’s Ukraine bail-out came out of the Welfare Fund, at the same time as the general budget is being trimmed.

 The lessons of 1989

1989 may have seen progress towards a Europe more whole and free, but the events in Ukraine remind us that that process is far from completed. The other side of 1989 was a loss of liberty elsewhere, most notably in Tiananmen Square. There are also lessons for autocrats from the events in Ukraine. First, the events of 29 November show that there is such a thing as the wrong amount of (public) violence. The attacks on demonstrators were brutal enough to spark even bigger protests, but not brutal enough to be truly intimidating. A frontal assault on the Maidan would now carry costs that most members of the regime seem unwilling to bear. But the regime has not abandoned violence; it has simply shifted it away from the Maidan; beating, kidnapping and harassing activists away from the world’s TV cameras and smart phones.

 Russia in 2012 used selective repression; this is off-screen repression. And the authorities partially understand that new media isn’t that new. It still follows the law of the photogenic. There are more news stories in the West about nationalist stone-throwers than there are about government snatch squads, the beaten and the disappeared.

 Ukraine’s new nationalism

One more key date is 1991, with many Ukrainians seeing unfinished business from their year of formal independence. Moreover, Ukraine is not just revisiting 1991, but re-asking the same questions as in 1991. Which is more important – constructing a nation or deconstructing communism? Both are unfinished tasks, and this time there is a much stronger nationalist element, arguing that the Revolution has to be national if it is to succeed.

 Russia has its ‘new nationalists’, who are more focused on migration politics and the distraction of the North Caucasus, but have also tried to build bridges with anti-Putin liberals and are more introspective than traditional Russian Great Power statists.

 Ukraine’s new nationalism, on the other hand, has a different dynamic. It is more ambiguous about predecessor movements, reviving the cult of interwar nationalist leader Stepan Bandera at the same time as disparaging the old émigré nationalists of the 1990s. It attacks Russian imperialism, but is also focused on the domestic reasons for the failings of Ukraine’s post-1991 state, arguing that neo-Soviet or creolic identity politics have been a useful cover for the Yanukovych kleptocracy, and would have to be confronted in a post-Yanukovych Ukraine, to prevent the same thing happening again. Which is contestable – others still argue that money doesn’t smell, and those who steal it are not usually defined by ethnicity or language.

 A less than obvious other date is 1914: an ideal time for Putin, when Russia was a major power in a concert of powers, and a guardian of conservative values – and when Ukraine was not on the map. Putin and the Ukrainian leadership have reframed the debate about Europe into the threat of gay marriage spread by ‘tolerasty.’ The Orthodox Patriarchs of Russia and, Georgia sang this tune in a virtual chorus in their Christmas messages; the Metropolitan of Ukraine’s Moscow Patriarchate was criticised for his more moderate tone.  So, ironically or not, Ukraine’s new nationalists are on the other side by default: pro-European and opposed to Putin’s ‘conservative’ values campaign – which makes them different to most of the European new right.

 So a final possible date is 1968, the year of cultural revolution’; which, in France at least, meant short-term political defeat, but long-term victory through a Gramscian strategy of changing the paradigm of cultural hegemony. In Ukraine, this would mean a real post-Soviet psychological revolution. Some Maidan activists have launched an anti-oligarch campaign to persuade people to buy the ‘right’ products; others have backed a campaign to use only the free media.

 But we have heard little yet about personal liberation, about living in truth and communicating it, and not allowing myths to fester, as Ukraine did after 2004, when, the Party of Regions’ narrative that the Orange Revolution was only a ‘western’ coup d’état was allowed to take hold in southern and eastern Ukraine. The same could happen again this time.

 The debate about where exactly Ukraine is, or should be going will gain more focus in time, concentrating on what has gone wrong since 1991 and why the Orange Revolution was such a relative failure after 2004. And the debate will change if there are other ‘Maidans’ or ‘anti-Maidans’ in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at UCL-SSEES. 

This post was first published on Open Democracy and is reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.